Spring semester, Georgia Southern University switched virtually all of its roughly 5,000 classroom course sections to an online-only format in midstream. Yet the number of students interested in the summer sessions, which will be taught exclusively online, has not suffered, said Provost Dr. Carl Reiber.
“We’re not going to see what we worried about the most, which was a massive, massive drop in student participation in the summer,” he said. “It’s not really there. So I’m delighted, and hopefully the fall will be the same. We’re hoping this virus goes away and never comes back again.”
Reiber, whose full title is Georgia Southern University provost and vice president for academic affairs, talked to the Statesboro Herald during finals week. This Friday and Saturday, he and GS President Dr. Kyle Marrero are addressing graduates during “virtual commencements” recorded for each of the university’s eight subject-area colleges.
But the main topic of the phone interview with Reiber was the success of the spring semester emergency transition and what university officials expect for summer and fall. The University System of Georgia’s ordered move to all-online classes took effect March 30 at Georgia Southern, following the scheduled spring break week and an added week off for preparations.
“The full range of experiences, I think one can say, we had,” Reiber said. “The faculty who had taught online, where the classes were already online, transitioned very, very smoothly. Faculty who had never taught online clearly had a lot of work to engage in. I must say I am tremendously proud of the faculty at Georgia Southern University. It went remarkably smoothly.”
The fourth ‘campus’
But online instruction was far from new to Georgia Southern. In the past two years and retroactive to previous years, the university’s reporting of enrollment includes an “online campus,” in addition to the Statesboro, Armstrong and Liberty campuses.
Last fall, Georgia Southern had 2,017 online-only students, up 12.2% from a year earlier. Although still less than a tenth of the total GS student population of 26,054, the online campus was the only campus that showed significant enrollment growth from fall 2018 to fall 2019. Many students at the regular campuses also regularly take some of their classes online.
For two or more years now, the university has been using a platform called Folio for online course offerings.
“When we had the hurricane a few years ago, we started pushing that all faculty have their sections activated in Folio in the event we had a hurricane that would shut us down … and so when we started this, that was our continuity of instruction platform. …,” Reiber said. “So we have really had the foundation for transitioning to online very well prepared.”
As spring semester began, the university was offering 707 online sections, a section being a “class” in the sense of a group of students taught together by an instructor. That count did not include the Executive Master of Business Administration program or the online core curriculum program called eCore.
But after the emergency transition, all 5,590 spring 2020 sessions were taught online.
Professors supplemented Folio with other online tools, such as Zoom for videoconferencing, and also “found really creative ways to do these things,” Reiber said.
He acknowledged that the transition was not equally easy or successful for all subjects but said that creativity saved the day.
"Even in the performing arts, students did their performances over the video and were assessed by the instructors that way,” Reiber said. “Now clearly, you can't have a symphony that way, all sitting in their own homes, and so they had to do some changes there.
“But almost all of them, if not 100% – I haven't heard of any that cancelled anything per se – they adapted and overcame the issues and moved on, not ideal, but they did it,” he said.
Nurses and teachers
Field experiences for students learning to be nurses and teachers are governed by state boards. But when hospitals and physicians’ practices would no longer accommodate nursing students because of potential COVID-19 liability, the students were allowed, by special state permission, to return to the GS School of Nursing and use its “simulation centers.”
This was done “in smaller groups, under 10, with social distancing and a whole lot of cleaning,” Reiber said.
College of Education students were able to continue their practicum experiences after the primary and secondary schools closed, often by helping their supervising teachers provide online instruction.
In the sciences, departments such as biology created lab packs, or “labs in a box” and distributed the materials to students and for use in demonstrations and experiments that were shared online.
But some science courses, organic chemistry being one example, require hands-on lab work that cannot be sent home, Reiber said. While the courses already in progress were completed by creative means during the final weeks of spring semester, faculty members devised a new approach for summer, extending into fall.
During the online-only summer sessions, classes of this type that are ordinarily four-credit-hour courses will be taught as three-credit-hour lecture course, minus the lab work. Then a one-credit-hour lab course will be offered in the fall, for example.
For fall semester, hands-on work is being “frontloaded” when possible in courses that require it, Reiber said. This is being done on the assumption that fall could start normally but that if the virus reappears it will do so during flu season.
“The virus is going to dictate to us how we go forward,” he said, acknowledging that university officials have to plan for another possible shutdown of on-campus classes.
But for summer, interest in the online-only sessions has been surprisingly strong, according to two of the university’s vice presidents. The first of two concentrated summer sessions, and the long session for some courses, begin May 18.
“I've been watching enrollments very carefully … and we're not seeing a lot of change in our enrollment,” Reiber said. “We expected it to drop off considerably, we were just worried, but we've been reaching out to students and working with them, and we're really not seeing a huge change in the enrollments this summer."
GS Vice President for Communications and Marketing John Lester said university officials will only release final enrollment numbers, which are not available yet.
“I can tell you that we continue to be encouraged about summer enrollment because even with the clear knowledge that we are fully online delivery for summer, we are not seeing notable declines in either continuing student registration or new student admissions,” Lester emailed Friday.